Siberia & the Sonoran Desert: A Cross-Continental Connection

What does the region of Siberia and the Sonoran Desert have in common? How is the Desert Museum connected to this remote region of the world? Many people are surprised to learn that the Desert Museum is known throughout the international community as a leader in regional displays, interpretation and education. Keep reading to learn more about an interpretive assignment that Marie Long, Associate Director of Conservation Education & Science, recently returned from.

Interpretation has a long time-line throughout history, in various traditions and cultures, beginning with the first story tellers who communicated both orally and through the visual arts. The field has vastly grown and the National Association for Interpretation (NAI) has set the foundation for museum professionals across the field to apply interpretive principles and standards to their unique sites-interpreting the arts, culture, natural resources, and history. Interpretation defined by Sam Ham, is a mission-based approach to communication aimed at provoking in audiences the discovery of personal meaning and the forging of personal connections with things, places, people and concepts. The Desert Museum applies these important principles across the museum’s landscape through docent interpretations, programs, exhibits, signage and conservation initiatives. The educational goal and mission of the Museum is ultimately to foster love, understanding and appreciation of the Sonoran Desert and cultivate conservation action and stewards of the environment. 

Many people are surprised to learn that the Desert Museum is known throughout the international community as a leader in regional displays, interpretation and education. Routinely, we receive guests from across the nation and internationally who visit and consult staff in order to learn and apply interpretation to their museums, zoos and aquariums. A few examples of institutions that have modeled their docent programs, regional exhibitory, conservation programming and interpretations include the following: Living Desert (California, United States), Ecological Center of Sonora (Sonora, Mexico), Alice Springs Desert Park (Australia) and the Royal Burgers’ Zoo (Netherlands). We also host site visits and cultural exchanges with many colleagues visiting the United States as well and have guests from the Middle East, Russia, Africa and Europe. 

My interpretive assignment to Russia began with an invitation from Irkutsk State University and the Siberian Association for Interpretation (SAI) to travel to Siberia and provide expertise on interpretation. The University was planning a Communications Conference in celebration of its 100 year anniversary, and wanted to include a track focused on interpretation along with providing an Interpretive Guide Seminar certification for museum professionals. It was a unique opportunity, in that this was the first time that interpretation had been presented in an academic setting in Russia in addition to offering a university certification in the interpretive field. My host Elena Weber, Associate Professor of Linguistics, and co-founder of the SAI, is an advocate for creating a Department on Interpretation at the University and these sessions were the first steps moving towards her long-term vision. Siberia leaders anticipate an increased need for professionals in the field of both linguistics and interpretation due to the rapid expansion of eco-tourism. Visitors from around the world are beginning to tour the region and require professional translators and engaging and memorable experiences. The foundation of originally introducing the field of interpretation to Siberia has been provided thanks to the prior work, commitment and support of the NAI, Earth Island Institute and dedicated team members of SAI.

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Pinacate Biosphere Reserve, Sonora Mexico
Photos: Dena Cowan & Marie Long

What does the region of Siberia and deserts have in common? Surprisingly, there are quite a few connections. Both regions conjure images of vast wastelands devoid of life, and the assumption that they are places inhospitable to travelers. Other misconceptions include places of low biodiversity (numbers of plants and animals), and that early peoples were barely “surviving” in the extreme climatic conditions. These myths and so many more are wide spread and couldn’t be farther from the truth.

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Historical photo of Trans-Siberian railway & Lake Baikal in winter

Many first-time guests visiting the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum are surprised at how “green and lush” the desert can be and their original vision of desolate plains and endless sand dunes are debunked. Of course the Sonoran desert includes both of these geological features, but there are so much more that can be discovered hidden below the surface, the vast seedbank and animal burrows to name a few. They are even more impressed as they learn about the high diversity of plants and animals that occur in the Sonoran Desert and discover most of these species are thriving and not struggling to survive. Tohono O’odham, Desert Peoples, have oral history and songs tied to the Sonoran Desert landscape and generations of traditional ecological knowledge, that has been instrumental for their success living in the desert as well.

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Pinacate Biosphere Reserve, Sonora Mexico and red-tailed hawk
Photos: Marie Long

 

My original vision of Siberia, similar to so many Desert Museum’s guest’s first time encounter with the Sonoran Desert, painted an inaccurate picture of a vast wilderness that was bleak, cold, dark and inhospitable; definitely not a place on my top list as a premier travel destination. After my recent interpretive assignment to Siberia, I learned that my assumptions could not be farther from the truth. I discovered the eastern region of Russia, referred to as Siberia, is truly a hidden treasure. The region offers vast tracks of wilderness, endemic species (animals or plants found nowhere else in the world), taiga forests, highlands, tundra, wetlands and an amazing diversity of iconic animals from grizzly bears, wolves, sables to fresh water seals. I learned about the indigenous peoples of the region and early settlers who all had a deep connection to the landscape and were closely tied to the mighty Lake Baikal. I also encountered welcoming and friendly people over a hot cup of tea and enjoyed endless bowls of wild mushroom soup, borsch (beet and potato soup), Burayti dumplings and decadent pastries.

 

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Taiga forest, Siberia Russia
Photo: Marie Long

 

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Interpretive sign (sable, brown bear and Baikal seal)
Photo: Marie Long

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Interpretation at Baikalsky Visitor Center, Russia & Interpretation at the Desert Museum 
Photos: Marie Long

 

 

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Elena Weber, Associate Professor of Linguistics at Irkutsk State University, Svetlana Kuklina,, Professor of Natural Science at Irkutsk State University and Evgeniya Bukharova,  Botanist at the Barguzin Nature Reserve
Photo: Marie Long

 

In preparation for my trip to Siberia, I worked on putting together interpretive resources, handouts and PowerPoint presentations that could be translated into Russian prior to my visit. I also took the opportunity to immerse myself in studying about the region.

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My first destination was Irkutsk, one of the largest cities in Siberia, with a population of 587,891. Dubbed “The Paris of Siberia” by Anton Chekhov in the late 19th century, the city is located along the Angara River and is full of beautifully preserved wood and stone buildings and a variety of museums and historical sites.

 

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Epiphany cathedral, & refurbished historic building, Irkutsk Russia
Photos: Marie Long

While in Irkutsk I presented at the State University Communication Conference: Role of Academia—Interpretation and Communication, co-taught an extensive Interpretive Guide Seminar with my colleague Chuck Lennox and presented subjects that included ‘Marketing Approaches to Launching Exhibits and Programs and the fundamentals of a  ‘Visitor Experience.’  I was able to draw upon specific examples of case studies that the Desert Museum has been involved in for over 14 years.

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Interpretive Guide Seminar
Photos: Marie Long

 

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Interpretive Guide Seminar graduates, professors and translators -Irkutsk State University, Russia
Photo: Marie Long

After presentations at Irkutsk, I traveled to Tanhoi, a charming village of approximately 1000 people, nestled along the shores of Lake Baikal. The area surrounding the lake is often referred to as “The Precious Necklace of Baikal” and includes over ten expansive nature reserves and national parks. Tanhoi, is the entry point into Baikalsky State Nature Biosphere Reserve founded in 1969 and protects 167,871 hectares of land.

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Svetlana Kuklina, Elena Weber, Chuck Lennox, Marie Long, and Tatiana Starova at Lake Baikal, Russia

At the Reserve my colleague and I taught, with the assistance of the Siberian Association of Interpretation staff an additional Interpretive Guide Seminar for natural resource professionals. We also met with the Director and Associate Director of the Reserve, Irina Lyasota, and Vasilly Sutulla and learned that eco-tourism is a priority not only for the park, but for the entire Baikal basin. The number of tourists (especially Chinese tourists) visiting the region is growing and protected areas surrounding the lake are beginning to build infrastructure, create local eco-products, develop programs, tours, and train staff in anticipation of increased visitation.

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Baikalsky State Nature Biosphere Reserve Visitor Center, Russia
Photos: Marie Long

The Russian government has prioritized tourism development in the area which has resulted in the recent completion of a beautifully designed Visitor Center. The Center interprets the unique flora and fauna, culture and geology of the Reserve and provides visitors with knowledge on how they can make a difference in protecting this national treasure. Trail systems, and a boardwalk have been built and are being expanded to connect the new Visitor Center with the trail entry point into the Reserve. The boardwalk provides visitors with immersive and accessible nature experiences. Park staff and outside educational groups are already providing environmental programs, including camping and trail building experiences with local school children and for students from the surrounding area.

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Interpretive panels at Baikalsky Visitor Center
Photos: Marie Long

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Baikal Trail System
Photos: Marie Long

When I travel outside desert regions I am always attracted to water, since it is such a precious resource in the Sonoran Desert. In Siberia, Lake Baikal claims the world record as the deepest lake on earth with a maximum depth of 5370’ and sits at 1496’ above sea level. There are approximately 300 rivers feeding the lake system and the Angara River is the only outlet that drains the lake. Rich in biodiversity the lake hosts approximately 2, 640 species of plants and animals and scientists speculate that there are many species that have yet been identified. North to south the lake runs 395 miles and the maximum width is 49 miles with a lake surface area of 31,500 kilometers. Geologically the bottom of the lake has a spreading center, similar to what’s happening on the oceanic floor of the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California).

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Lake Baikal, Russia
Photo: Marie Long

Looking out over the vast lake, I had to keep reminding myself that this was fresh water that is safe to drink. I was completely inspired by this stunning and tremendous resource not only for wildlife, but for people. At the Reserve’s Visitor Center, they have engaging signage that does an exceptional job of telling the story of the Reserve. Staff at the site is now interested in creating specialty tours, hands-on interpretations, creating volunteer programs and other engaging experiences for their national and international guests.  The role of the next generation of interpreters at the Reserve will help instill conservation stewards of the surrounding region to continue to protect the true jewel of the Siberia, Lake Baikal.

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Special thanks to my hosts and translators Anya and Varya, both have a background leading environmental education programs at the Reserve.

After the seminars, I met with Vasilly, the park Director, and Irina, the Associate Director to learn about their vision of creating eco-tourism at their site, and new projects underway. There was a lot of synergy happening within the Reserve including a recent completion of a hands-on bird museum (near a bird-banding station), the recent completion of  a new building that would serve as a  science center at the Reserves entry to the  trail system, expansion of the eco-trail system connecting the new Visitor Center with the old headquarters, creation of a children’s zone adjacent to the Visitor Center and the recent acquisition of additional land protecting important bird habitat in the delta and construction of visitor infrastructure for eco-tourism. All of the projects underway were very exciting to hear about and it was impressive on how much a small team of committed staff had accomplished.

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Irina Lyasota, Associate Park Director, Marie Long, Chuck Lennox and Vasilly Sutulla, Park Director

It was interesting to learn about the Park staffs vision of what they wanted visitors to walk away with as they began thinking about creating interpretive panels in the newly constructed science center near the trail head. It was the same vision the Desert Museum’s Science Council team had been discussing over the last few years. The main idea was the importance to communicate with visitors at our sites that science is important, share accolades of how long-term science resulted in conservation, showcase current scientific projects and inspire people to support efforts through citizen science and protect resources in their communities. After our discussion I was invited to lead and facilitate an interpretive planning session for the new science visitor center based on these key goals.

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Interpretive planning session for new visitor center at Baikalsky Nature Reserve Visitor Center

I also had an opportunity to visit a premier bird-banding research station within the Reserve where they were collecting data on bird migration and species diversity.

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Long-term site for bird banding and research at Lake Baikal. Red flanked blue tail ready for release after banding and data collection
Photos: Marie Long

The next lag of my journey was travelling on the Trans-Siberian railway to the city of Ulan-Ude, with a population of 431,000. I was accompanied by Jenya Bukharova, a Botanist who had invited me to stay in her home during my last part of the trip.  When we arrived at her home I was greeted by her sister, a retired surgeon, who was preparing traditional Burayti dumplings for the occasion. The next day I was met by Elena Chernobrovkina my translator at the Sampilov Museum of Fine Arts where we met with the Director who toured us through the collection. She showed us a new space that would be converted to a hands-on science hall. Staff shared their concepts and plans of what they envisioned and told me the exhibit would showcase the geology, flora, fauna and culture of the Buryat region. They had plans to utilize their vast ethnographic collection. I was asked to provide feedback on their vision based on interpretive planning principles and provide a presentation covering the basics of interpretive planning.

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Travelling on the Trans-Siberian railway to Ulan-Ude, Russia
Photos: Marie Long

 

 

 

 

 

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  My host’s sister welcoming me with Buryati dumplings 

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Special thanks to Lena Chernobrovkina (on left) as my translator in Ulan-Ude

 

 

 

On the last day of my trip I was treated to a tour to visit the Ivolginsky Datsan Buddhist Temple, which was opened in 1945, and was the only Buddhist Spiritual Center in Russia during the Soviet era. I also had the opportunity to visit the Ethnographic Museum of Buryatia, one of Russia’s largest open-air museums (37 hectares) that showcase peoples of the region that showcased Huns, Evenks, Prebaikalian Buryat, Transbaikalian Buryat, Russian Cossacks, Old Believers, and Old Verhneudinsk.

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Ivolginsky Datsan Buddhist Temple
Photos: Marie Long

 

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Ethnographic Museum of Buraytia

 

Returning to the Sonoran Desert, I brought back fond memories of Siberia, both my experiences with the people and the landscape. The passion to protect the arts, culture, traditions and the environment is a common thread we share and it was a privilege to share my passion of education and interpretation with my new colleagues and friends. Lake Baikal is truly a world treasure and the entire region of Siberia has a wide array of travel opportunities. I invite you to add this region of the world to your next visit abroad or travel adventure.

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Written by: Marie Long, Associate Director of Conservation Education & Science 


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